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message 1: by Glenda (last edited Feb 26, 2016 04:01PM) (new)

Glenda Reynolds (glendareynolds) | 997 comments Mod
I was given permission to share this topic by author Donna B. Comeaux from her blog. Enjoy and may we all be better writers.


Are you fed up with grammarians and critiquers who constantly tell you don't do that, do this? Me too!

But like everything in life, rules exist to navigate us to our particular destination.

I'm certain most of you have grown weary of the following:

• Never begin a sentence with And, But, or Because

• Never end a sentence with a preposition such as with or of

• Avoid these modifiers: very, more, quite, like

• Avoid "to be" verbs: be, is, are, am, were, was, been, being

• "Show" don't "Tell"

• Write in active voice (AV), not in passive voice (PV). For example:

I lost my drivers license. (AV)

Rather than:

My drivers license was lost [by me]. (PV) (See page 61 of Style1.)

• Avoid overuse of pronouns such as he and she

Rules sometimes confuse us, give us a headache, cause us to open a window and pitch our computers down two flights of stairs. It's not that rules are meant to self-impose or inflict someone's superior ego. It's just that there are so many of them. Even if we meticulously follow each and every one, critiquers will continue to find errors in our writing. With all the well-meaning restrictions, the writing process really does tempt you to open that window.

Here's what many people don't tell you—

Rules are important, but never more important than a good story. A good storyteller can break four out of ten rules and still have an audience so captivated that most readers won't even notice the infractions. The story plot is tight, characters well-rounded, and scenes so action-packed that no one bothers to count the four pronouns used in a single paragraph or the split infinitives.

If no one has ever shared the secret, let me be the first: It's all about the story.

Writing is more about good storytelling. When written with consistency, balance, well-developed characters who are flawed, even unlikeable—but convincingly so, you can keep a reader turning the page until The End. However, a good writer gives a great deal of thought to bending and breaking the rules with calculated precision.

About a year ago, in disgust I shadowboxed imaginary foes and pushed away from my computer. There was a war going on inside me and I wanted to hit someone, anyone, punch them right in the face, throw a book or two at any and everyone that represented the publishing world.
In all my madness, stubbornness wouldn't free me of my need to write. So, I pulled one book after another from my library. I even dug into classics and thumbed through them for hours. In a fit of rage, mainly because none of the books proved helpful, I pulled recent publications off the shelves. They included writers such as: Tami Hoag, Judith McKnaught, Sandra Brown, John Grisham, Toni Morrison, Mary Proulx, Tolstoy, Hemmingway, Steinbeck,Twain. Unsatisfied, I flipped through English books I studied in school—those English books that have about 30 or more stories and poems and plays inside that you're required to read and analyze.
Know what I found?
There wasn't one writer that obeyed all the rules. Not one.
It dawned on me that I couldn't use any of these writers as an example to write well. I toyed with the idea that maybe my collection of stories wasn't good enough. After all, too many of the writers used passive voice, or used "had had" (which I hate), opened their chapters with "to be" verbs and threaded them throughout their entire book.

Then, I found something I didn't expect. (I really do mean for you to pause after that comma.) Since I had read most of these books through and through, I realized they all had one thing in common. The writers told great stories.

So, what are we to make of all the rules?

First, know the rules.

I know what you're thinking. You're ahead of me, aren't you? Rules are made to be broken. You're right. They are. Everyone breaks them. But the most important thing to remember is that you must know the rules before you take the liberty of breaking them. We tread dangerous waters when we write without any regard to what is acceptable. This carefree style of writing will only disappoint you and foil your attempts to support yourself as a writer.

Second, you must develop a clear understanding as to why the rules exist in the first place.

For example, rules are simply trying to unveil one important fact: you're breaking the rules too often. Repetitively breaking the rules will make your manuscript sound flat. Don't believe me, take another look at that chapter someone just critiqued for you. Prove me wrong.

Here is an example from my manuscript entitled, Red Satin Ribbons:

Two open suitcases sat near the door. Curious, she leaned forward. On top lay a pair of shorts, a wool Christmas sweater, blue jeans, and two sleeveless shells. She chewed on a broken fingernail and wondered where she'd decided to go. She didn’t remember planning a trip and didn’t feel like traveling even if she had. When she relaxed on her pillow, she caught glimpse of the damaged wallpaper. Melba gasped. Who would . . . ? Then she remembered. She sunk in bed, closed her eyes, and covered half her face with the sheets.

The critiquer's comment: Lots of "she" starts.

After confirming that I had overused "she" NINE times, I revised the paragraph as follows:

Two open suitcases sat near the door. Curious, she Melba leaned forward. On top lay a pair of shorts, a wool Christmas sweater, blue jeans, and two sleeveless shells. She chewed on a broken fingernail and wondered w Uneven fingernails scaled over her bottom lip. Where had she'd decided to go? She Melba didn’t remember planning a trip and didn’t feel like traveling even if she had. When she relaxed on her Her back hit the pillow. , she caught glimpse of the A glimpse of damaged wallpaper made Melba gasp. Melba gasped. Who would . . . ? Then she remembered. She sunk in bed, closed her eyes, and covered half her face with Shame and horror sunk pressed her body deeper between the sheets.

So, I ask you: Is the overuse of pronouns a valid rule? You bet it is.

Third, when deliberately breaking the rule, give meticulous thought as to how many times you plan to do so. As I've said before, break the rule too often, and you run the risk of losing your reader. Pay close attention to this warning.

Fourth, listening and reading are essential to becoming a good writer.

You must become a better student by listening to good advice and reading good books. Many of us want to venture into writing by doing it our way, regardless to the advice of grammarians and critiquers. This attitude can set you up for failure and leave you wondering why everyone else is publishing but you.

For instance, some choose to write the way we talk. Many don't realize that writing the way we speak doesn't always go over well in print.

Fifth, know your audience.

You don't want to fill your manuscript with complex sentences and large vocabulary words if you're writing teen fiction.

Sixth, use as many resources as your money can buy.

Be resourceful by buying used reference books.

But let me caution you about paying for services that help you with these writing rules. Many websites exist solely to solicit monies from you for the very things we can learn on our own. I look at it this way: if a site is advertising to help with eliminating pronouns, I will enter eliminating pronouns in my search engine and research this until I find "free" advice. One site may "not" offer as much advice as you like, but a collection of sites may give you all that need.

Don't, however, limit yourself to the internet. Keep good reference books at your fingertips. Reading is the best advice I can offer you. READ. Read. Read. Read good books. And don't limit yourself to one genre. You'll be surprised what you can learn from other writers.

The following books have proven useful for me.

• Edgerton, Les (2007). Hooked - Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Let them Go. Cincinnati, OH: F+W Media, Inc.

• Heehler, Tom (2011). The Well-Spoken Thesaurus - The Most Powerful Way to Say Everyday Words and Phrases. Naperville, IL: Sourcebook, Inc.

• Little, Brown & Company Limited. (2nd ed.). (1983). The Little Brown Workbook. Canada.

• Plotnik, Arthur (2005). Spunk & Bite - A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Lanugage & Style. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

• Ragno, Nancy (2011). Word Savvy - Use the Right Word Every Time, All the Time. Cincinnati, OH: F+W Media, Inc.

• Williams, Joseph M. (9th ed.). (2007). Style1 - Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

• Yagoda, Ben (2013). How to Not Right Bad Rite Bad Wright Bad Write Bad - The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. New York, NY: Riverhead Books (Penquin Group USA) Inc.

Happy writing!

Donna B. Comeaux

Author, Poet, Novelist



Selfish Ambition - http://www.smashword.com; bn.com

message 2: by Mirta (new)

Mirta Oliva (mirtaoliva) | 362 comments Interesting and informative, Glenda. A good refresher course written in good taste and entertaining. You covered both angles - using proper grammar and breaking the rules with moderation, to suit the story. While certain rules are broken on purpose:
“But... why me, why not someone else? Or, ... And he was right!,”
others, particularly punctuation, are less forgiving. To much unnecessary or wrong punctuation may ruin a good story, but the lack of it can also make the reader go back a couple of times to really understand the meaning. It was a good reminder: keep an eye on obvious mistakes that could detract for an otherwise great story. I had a good laugh amidst your examples and valuable reference material.

message 3: by David (new)

David (drussell52) Hello Writers,
This is my third year anniversary month with this group and I love many of you! I also am here because I got a stinging critique earlier today from the outside that sent me scurrying to writer resources for a morale boost. This article by Donna Comeaux is one such example..
I found another, pasted below that's titled
"The Art Of The Start" from the Website, write to done.com

I think some valuable insights are given.
I like the following points:
-What effect are you going for?
-Every word, every sentence should somehow contribute to the effect you're going for in the first 1-3 paragraphs.
-Grab reader's attention.
-Arouse reader curiosity.
-Have something happen immediately.
-Start with action. "The day went downhill when .....
I hope this helps us all.
Short Stories: The Art of the Start

Photo courtesy of Gio JL
One of my favorite things to read is a good short story. A great one is perfection: you can read it in one sitting, and it achieves its effect in a short amount of time and words.
And the best short story grabs you immediately, yanks you like the a gamer snatching a fresh Nintendo Wii as soon as it hits the shelves.
Novels are amazing, but the drawback is that they are a whole bunch of elements that have to be corralled and marshaled to create the desired effect.
And as it’s not easy to read a novel in one sitting (though I’ve done it, and I’m sure many of you have too) … the illusion of the world to which we’re transported by the magic of fiction is constantly interrupted and ruined by everyday life.
A short story, however, won’t do a thing for the reader if it doesn’t have a great opening.
Consider Poe’s A Tell-tale Heart … a classic. Here’s the opening paragraph:
“True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”
Within a few words — just the first three or five words really — Poe sets the tone of the story, and brings the insanity of the narrator to the opening sentence. He catches our attention and makes us curious to read more. It’s hard to beat an opening like that.
Poe knew the value of a great opening — he was one of the masters of this art form, and he took advantage of the first few sentences like few others. Now, not every first paragraph has to be as over-the-top as that of the Tell-tale Heart, but it sets a great example for us.
Creating the Great Opener
While revision is important for the entire short story — you should rip it apart and massage it and mold it until you have it right — I recommend paying special attention to the first paragraph or three.
Here are my suggestions for creating a great beginning to your short story:
• What effect are you going for? In a short story, you have a limited time to create an effect in the reader’s mind. Think of our example, A Tell-tale Heart … and think of what effect it creates in your mind by the end. You can be sure that Poe was going for that effect, and that he worked hard to craft it … and you can see that he began that effect in the first paragraph. Think about your desired effect, and then see how you can begin the process of creating it in your first couple of paragraphs. Every sentence, every word, should somehow contribute to that effect.
• Grab their attention. This is one of the main jobs of the short story opener — get the reader’s attention. Imagine that your story is being published in a magazine — you’re competing for the reader’s attention with feature articles about how to win a man or how to please her in bed. You’ve got to get that attention immediately.
• Get them curious. Beyond just getting their attention, you have to arouse their curiosity, so that you can hold their attention, and get them to want to read more. Be different. Raise a question in the reader’s mind. Draw them into your world.
• Be true to the story. While the last two points above are important, it’s also not good to try to have a flashy opener when your story is more subdued. If you get the reader’s attention and draw them in, and the story turns out to be completely different from the opening, you’ve broken an implied promise to the reader. The opening is a promise about what the story will be like. Be true to the spirit of the story, or you’ll break that promise.
• Have something happen immediately. You don’t need to do this in every story opening, of course, but it’s good to start in the middle of the action rather than in the beginning, when nothing is happening. For example, “I woke up that morning with no idea that today would be different from any other” is not as interesting as if you started in the middle of the action: “So things started going downhill after I accidentally tripped the bank’s alarms and the guards began shooting at me.” Actually, that’s past tense — if I were to rewrite that opening, I’d probably begin in the present tense, describing the tripping of the alarm and the bullets flying by.
• Eschew adjectives. The novice writer adds a whole bunch of adjectives to achieve the desired effect. They’re a shortcut, but they’re telling instead of showing. Don’t tell the reader that the character is wacky or tough. Show him, through action and dialogue.
• Consider dialogue. Sometimes the best openings are dialogue. Not always, but sometimes. It’s an option to think about, at least.
• Describe an interesting character. While description can be a boring way to start a story, if the character is incredibly interesting, such a description can definitely help create the story’s desired effect, and catch the reader’s attention and curiosity.
• Be concise. Cut out all unnecessary words. You don’t have a lot of time to create your desired effect, to catch the reader’s attention, to draw him into the story.
• Don’t be trite. You probably have to read a bunch of short stories to know what’s trite, but if you’ve seen it in bad stories before, avoid it. Describing the weather (“It was a dark and stormy night”) is but one example.
• Feel free to break the rules. The rules I spelled out above were meant to be broken, as are all writing rules. They’re guidelines, really, so if you have something that breaks the rules and works, go for it.
• And always rewrite. No matter what your first attempt, chances are it can be improved. Look over the points above and see if there’s some way you can make it better. Can you put the reader even more in the middle of the action? Can you cut out unnecessary words? Would present tense be better? Can the dialogue be improved? Do several rewrites if you can.

Yep, do several rewrites.

David Russell

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